Kevin Durant's 2016 decision more difficult than just picking a team
There's a good reason Kevin Durant is warning fans not to listen to rumors ahead of his free agency in 2016: He has an incredibly complicated decision to make, one it's unlikely he's figured out yet himself.
With the salary cap jumping an anticipated 28 percent, a good portion of the league will have the cap space to chase a maximum-contract superstar, and Durant is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the 2016 free-agent crop. That means plenty of teams will throw their hats in the ring, and several will have some semblance of a chance if Durant begins taking meetings.
But Durant's decision is complicated by more than just destination. There's a good argument to be made that he would be best served by signing a one-year contract to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder next summer, only to do the free-agent dance all over again in 2017.
Three primary scenarios face Durant ahead of free agency, each with its own risks - and potential payoffs.
Option 1: Sign an extension now
Were Durant significantly concerned about the health of his surgically repaired right foot, he could move to secure himself some long-term salary right now.
But the NBA's collective bargaining agreement is incredibly restrictive when it comes to contract extensions, and Durant would leave a great deal of money on the table by signing now. The Thunder could give Durant three years and roughly $69.5 million on top of the one year and $20.2 million remaining on his contract. That's appreciable security, but a pittance relative to what Durant could command as a free agent.
Outcome: Three years, $69.5 million now
Option 2: Sign a max contract in 2016
This is the scenario most people talk about when discussing Durant's free agency. This summer's market demonstrated that, despite a rising cap environment, players prefer long-term security on balance, with several notable names eschewing the opportunity to explore free agency in a more fortuitous cap environment in order to maximize money now.
If Durant opted to sign a maximum contract with the Thunder, he'd be eligible for a five-year deal worth an estimated $145.6 million (based on current salary cap estimates for 2016-17). Should he opt to leave Oklahoma City, a competing team couldn't offer Durant a fifth season or as large an annual raise. An outside suitor's top offer would be a four-year contract worth an estimated $108.1 million.
(A player's maximum salary is based on a percentage of the salary cap - technically, of a separately calculated cap number - so Durant's first-year salaries and subsequent raises are subject to any deviation from the current future cap estimates.)
Outcome: Up to five years, $145.6 million in 2016
Option 3: Sign a 1-year contract in 2016, sign a max contract in 2017
Durant could make the bold but risky move of signing a one-year contract with the Thunder next summer in order to re-enter free agency a year later, not dissimilar to the way LeBron James continues to sign two-year deals with one-year opt-outs with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The salary cap isn't only expected to explode in 2016, it's also expected to rise an additional 20 percent for 2017-18. Because maximum first-year salaries are determined as a percentage of the salary cap, Durant would stand to increase his salary from 2017-18 onward by signing a new deal when the cap rises again.
(The cap isn't expected to continue rising in perpetuity, so this strategy is only viable for 2016 and 2017.)
Durant will also play his 10th NBA season in 2016-17, and once players have played 10 seasons, they're able to command an even larger percentage of the salary cap.
So, by going this route, Durant would not only open himself up to a larger salary cap, but to earning a greater percentage of that cap. Under current projections, Durant's 2017 maximum contract with the Thunder would be an estimated five-year, $203.8-million pact.
Signing a one-year deal to stay in OKC and then signing a five-year max with the Thunder is Durant's best path to maximizing his long-term earnings.
Outcome: One year, $25.3 million in 2016; up to five years, $203.8 million in 2017
Why Option 3 is no layup
Despite the numbers jumping off the page - from $69.5 million over three years to $229 million over seven years, and several bars in between - the decision isn't solely based on maximizing salary, and the proposed route to doing so may not be palatable for Durant.
Players have generally shown a proclivity for long-term security in negotiations. That desire for security may be even more pronounced for a player coming off a season almost entirely lost to a Jones fracture in his foot.
There's also the matter of a potential lockout in 2017. Both agents and the union have warned players to prepare for that possibility. A lockout would not only mean potential lost wages, but a new round of collective bargaining that could change the way maximum contracts are handled. Depending on how things shake out, that could hurt or benefit Durant, but NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has suggested she believes superstars of Durant's ilk shouldn't have their earnings capped.
Durant's substantial off-court earning power could also be a factor, though it's not clear whether a strong income stream outside of basketball would make him more or less risk-seeking.
There's a great deal of uncertainty in a rising cap environment with a lockout looming and an injury just behind him. Durant will sign some type of maximum contract at some point, but which path - and team - he chooses is an incredibly complex decision.
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